What is a Cross Trainer Machine? Complete Guide To Ellipticals

What is a Cross Trainer Machine
You’ll find cross trainers in any commercial gym

In this guide we’ll be taking an in-depth look at what exactly a cross trainer machine is, what it does and what muscles it works.

Home gyms and clubs have a huge range of choices for getting in shape these days but I wanted to focus on one of my favourite, and least punishing machines – the Elliptical Machine, or Cross Trainer. So lets answer the question – what IS an Elliptical machine and how can it help your training?

What is a cross trainer machine?

A cross trainer, or elliptical machine, is a freestanding piece of gym equipment designed to work both your upper body and legs at the same time. Your arms will be pushing and pulling, while your legs will be normally moving in an elliptical motion on what often look like skis.

This unusual combination of pushing and pulling with the arms, while striding sets this machine apart from other bits of gym gear.

You stand on an elliptical machine and work your arms and legs at the same time.

Elliptical cross trainers are a relatively new bit of kit, dating back to late eighties and really only taking prominence in mainstream in the past 10 years.

What does a cross trainer do?

So the main areas you’re going to be targeting are thighs, bum, upper body, core and your leg muscles. You’ll improve your strength but that’s only part of it. It’s possible to get a really good cardio workout on elliptical machines too.

Time-wise, you can do a heck of a lot in ten minutes, if you crank up the difficulty. But this is a really good choice for toning and grinding off some calories too. Some machines have full-colour touch screens, with live or pre-recorded instructors (see our NordicTrack FS9i review for an example of that’s possible).

How do you use a cross trainer?

  1. Approach the cross trainer and step up onto the large pedals. Don’t worry – they won’t start moving just yet.
  2. Set your drink in the bottle holder, if there is one.
  3. Turn the cross trainer on and pick a program.
  4. Choose the lightest setting and get a feel for moving your arms and legs.
  5. Once you’ve got a feeling for the balance, try increasing resistance.
  6. You should be able to move your arms and legs freely and not feel like you’re struggling.
  7. Set a short time of 5 minutes if you’re new to this and build up each session.

Who is an Elliptical Machine best suited for?

Not every piece of gym equipment can be used by everyone. And lets be honest, you have to know what you’re doing with things like smith machines and kettle bells. But elliptical machines are one of the safest, easy to use machines I’ve trained on over the years. I know someone in their mid 70’s who uses just that one machine each day and loves it.

Can you use an elliptical if you’re a shorter person?

Yes. Anyone can use an elliptical machine, regardless of how tall or how short they are. You do need to check the machine you’re thinking about buying has the correct stride length for you however. See our Best Ellipticals For Short People guide for the full low down.

So elliptical machines are easy!?

I made the mistake of avoiding elliptical machines for years because I thought they weren’t going to give me a tough enough workout. I was pretty shocked how good a workout I got when I actually tried them. Like a rowing machine, or exercise bike, ellipticals can be adjusted from an easy going pace up to a pretty serious workout.

I like to go by research rather than anecdotal information but you might be pleased to know that studies have shown that you burn calories on an elliptical at the same rate as you do on a treadmill.

Elliptical machines can track progress, heart rate and can be set to different intensities.
low impact training is a huge plus with these machines.

So what are the benefits of elliptical machines?

One of the best things about elliptical equipment, and the thing most people will cite as being of huge benefit, is that they don’t have any impact on your joints. If you think about a running machine, you get that constant thud, thud, thud as you’re running. Ellipticals are very smooth. There’s no end point to each movement and it all flows without any jarring on your body. So low impact training is a huge plus with these machines.

While most people wouldn’t say training at a gym was ‘fun’, there’s something about Elliptical cross trainers that is a lot less taxing that say a running machine, or exercise bike. I actually really enjoy using these machines and I find I get less bored that using the fore mentioned bits of gear. Might just be a personal thing, or maybe it’s that you’re doing something with all parts of your body.

Where next?

I hope I’ve covered the basics and tried to answer what is an elliptical trainer. There’s also a really good video on youtube with some key benefits to using a cross trainer.

If you think you might want to try some elliptical cross training from home, check out my guide on the best cross trainers for under £200. 

Happy training and let me know in the comments if you love ellipticals too.

Tom Armstrong

Hey! I've been training in all kinds of places, with all kinds of equipment for the best part of 30 years. I love training with my weights at home and writing about new products and training methods online. Well, with a name like Armstrong, I would have to be into training, right?